We all know that aerobic exercise, strength training, and nutrition are three components of a balanced fitness regime. But there's another, just as important, component that's often overlooked: stretching.
"It's the one area that is completely being neglected," says Michael Anthony George, a personal trainer to celebrities including Reese Witherspoon and Christian Slater.
Why is flexibility -- the ability to move joints and muscles through their full range of motion so important?
First off, staying flexible means avoiding injury and pain. Without stretching, tendons, ligaments and muscles will shorten, causing damage over time, says George, owner of Integrated Motivational Fitness.
"If a certain muscle group is weak, stiff, or tight, the body will actually hijack peripheral muscles to aid in that movement," he says. "Over time, these muscles can become injured."
For example, if someone is reaching into the car to pick up groceries and is not strong enough in the abdominals, arms, and legs, "they are going to use their back. If the motion can't come from where it needs to come from, it'll come from somewhere else," says exercise physiologist Robyn Stuhr, administrative director with the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Aliesa George (no relation to Michael Anthony George), owner of Centerworks Pilates in Wichita, Kan., sees the benefits of improved flexibility in her clients on a daily basis. Staying flexible, she says:
- Counters the shortening that occurs when muscles are repeatedly used -- as in exercise or a repetitive daily activity -- and keeps muscles elastic
- Increases the range of motion in joints
- Decreases joint pain and stress
- Improves balance, stability, and circulation
- Aids athletic performance, relaxation, and posture
In fact, Michael George says poor posture is the No. 1 problem he sees. He uses the term "collapsed thoracic syndrome" to describe the rounded and raised shoulders and tight necks often caused by slumping over a computer monitor for hours at a time,
"It happens gradually and we don't even notice," he says. "One day we look in the mirror and find our shoulders are a little rounded."
Good posture, he says, "prevents injury, speeds recovery, and improves physical appearance." But of all its benefits, a better appearance is the one he stresses to his clients. "People are concerned about body image," he says. "They don't care about injuries until they have them. Out of sight, out of mind."
In a sense, stretching can also help you stay young. "As most people get older, they experience gradual losses in flexibility, partially due to aging and partially due to lack of activity and exercise," Stuhr says.
This not only affects your workouts, but it can also affect the ability to perform daily tasks, like reaching to put away groceries or turning your head to look behind you while driving. The good news is that no matter what your age, you can improve your flexibility and with it, your quality of life.
"It's never too late to increase flexibility," says Aliesa George. "It just takes regular practice."
Stretching and Exercise
Though some studies have concluded otherwise, the fitness experts interviewed for this article say they believe that doing aerobic or strength-training exercise without stretching does increase the risk of injury.
Many of the studies have focused on young, active, fit individuals, and haven't looked at different populations, such as middle-aged or older, or sedentary people, Stuhr says.
And as a Pilates teacher, Aliesa George knows what tight muscles do to her clients.
"A high percentage, if not all, of injuries I see ... are definitely flexibility related or muscle-imbalance related, which is in part due to having muscles that are too strong or too inflexible."
Naturally, she says Pilates is a great way to improve flexibility: "With the emphasis on bending the spine in all directions -- flexion, extension, and rotation -- improvements in total body flexibility happen quickly."
And because of Pilates' emphasis on proper body alignment, its benefits carry over to other activities, "helping you practice using correct muscles during other workouts and throughout the rest of your day," she says.
Michael George, whose approach combines traditional Western fitness with Eastern practices, says it doesn't matter whether you choose yoga, Pilates, or basic athletic stretches.
"I'm a believer in all of them," he says. "People should add variety to their program to keep things interesting."
How to Get Started
Whatever type of flexibility exercise you choose, Stuhr cautions, use self-restraint -- don't just leap into that Pilates or yoga class and start trying to keep up with the folks in the front row.
"People tend to do too much," she says. "They go in and complete an hour class when they probably only should have done about 15 minutes."
She recommends choosing a class appropriate to your fitness level, or taking a private lesson with a qualified teacher. Listen to your body and don't overdo it, she says.
And if you're new to flexibility training -- especially if you have an injury or disability -- it's a good idea to get evaluated by a qualified fitness professional or physical therapist.
Here are some tips to consider when stretching:
- Be sure your muscles are warm before you stretch. If you are going to stretch before a workout, walk for five minutes first to get blood flowing to the muscles.
- Never bounce or push during a stretch.
- Ease into the stretch. Start with trying to hold it for 10 seconds. Work up to 30, and eventually 90 seconds.
- Exhale as you stretch.
- If you cannot stretch both before and after a workout, most experts advise stretching after the body has warmed up.
- Never stretch an injured muscle or joint.
- Stretching every day is optimal, but try to do it at least three times a week.
Below are some basic stretching exercises that target all the major muscle groups. Do the whole workout, or stretch a particular part of your body that's feeling tight. And don't forget to follow the safety tips above!
Neck: Standing straight with feet shoulder-width apart, drop the right ear toward the right shoulder and hold. Roll the head forward, stopping to rest the chin at your chest, than continue until the left ear is over the left shoulder. Lift the head and repeat starting on your left side.
Chest: Lying face-down with arms by your sides and palms facing down, tighten the abdominals to support the low back, than slide the shoulder blades down and together (like a "V") as you float your hands off the floor and lift your upper spine slightly off the floor.
Side/Back: Standing straight with feet shoulder-width apart, interlace the fingers and reach the arms overhead (do this only if you have no shoulder limitations). Lift up and out from your waist as you bend to each side, being careful not to shrug your shoulders.
Hamstrings: Lying face up, wrap a towel around the arch of the right foot, extend your leg and pull toward you gently, keeping hips and back on the ground. Strive to hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the left leg. The knee can remain slightly bent during this exercise if the hamstrings are tight.
Quadriceps: Standing straight with knees, hips, and shoulders aligned and abdominals tight, bend the right knee, drawing the right heel toward your buttocks. Reach the right hand around to hold the top of the right foot (use a towel or strap if necessary). Strive to hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the left leg. (You can also do this stretch lying on your side or stomach.)
Inner thighs: Sitting, place the soles of the feet together, and pull up slightly on the feet, hinging your body forward.
Calves: Using a wall for balance, step the right foot as far behind you as you can with your leg straight and the heel down. Lean forward, slightly bending the left leg. Repeat with your left foot behind you.